It’s a hot topic among parents today, how good our kids are at things. Whether it’s who made the honor roll, who scored the winning point or who won what award, having kids who are high-achievers makes us proud. And it should. But is having to be the best good for our kids?
“What did you fail at today?” I heard this quote from Sara Blakely, mother of four and the billionaire entrepreneur behind the Spanx brand. She was taught as a child that failure was good. When things she tried didn’t go as she hoped, instead of being embarrassed or depressed, she was taught to find the hidden gifts in the experience. At her house, failures were applauded for their value.
My seventeen-year-old is a serious track and field athlete who has struggled with failure. As in any sport or endeavor, there are hard-won victories, but there are many losses and heartbreaks along the way. Coach Tim St. Lawrence, her inspiring mentor, said it best after a tough meet, “You either win or you learn.”
And she has.
Beginning to see the value in losing has been one of the greatest developments that has come from her athletic career so far. When she was newer to the sport, she saw a loss as proof that she was really just an awful pole vaulter. She worried about letting everyone down. Having received many accolades for her successes up to that date, her identity was very much wrapped up in winning. She would say terrible things about herself and retreat to her room for days after a bad meet. Despite her attempts to control it out on the field, she would sulk, brood, and even shed tears after a poor performance.
Her coach always put a positive spin on it. He emphasized her development over time, and not to look at one isolated performance. He taught her to dig deep and find her mental toughness, to be there for her teammates and even to cheer on her competitors. Watching other athletes fall short, both in their performances and in the management of their emotions, was another motivator to build inner strength.
She has come to understand that everyone fails when they are trying to achieve something. It’s not a reason to fall apart, but just another challenge, an opportunity to learn, something to build on.
We often hear the generation of Millennials referred to as narcissistic. They supposedly value fame and money over intrinsic self-worth and leading a meaningful life. These are the kids who were given medals and trophies just for participating. Winning meant everything. If they didn’t win, our culture taught them, they must be losers.
It’s no surprise that they feel worthless if they aren’t achieving. In our social-media-driven world, we post only successes. We hide the failures. Every day, our kids are scrolling through the highlights of other people’s lives. They don’t see how hard it was to get there, how many times those winners got tripped up, fell, were discouraged and frustrated.
College-professor-friends have said that incoming freshmen don’t know how to fail. They’ve been taught that they must always succeed. They learn in college that failure is necessary and normal. In fact, it is crucial to the development of character and personal growth. That’s a difficult lesson to learn when they are simultaneously going through the biggest adjustment in their lives, that of living away from home.
After years of working in the field of foster care, I have come to learn that the most important factor in a child’s healthy development is belonging. It’s not being the best that builds a sense of security and well-being. That sense of attachment, the knowledge that they matter, is what builds confidence. They don’t need to win to be important, they just need to be.
When they perform a talentless show at the family barbeque, everyone loves it anyway. Storytime before bed is a priority, not only to them, but to you. They are important enough for you to make time for them: to take a walk, to have a movie night, to go out for ice cream. Most of us teach our children this when they are very little, but it tends to get lost as they grow up.
So while we all love when our kids are the best at something, isn’t it really about raising confident, well-adjusted, happy people? People who are able to create a meaningful life for themselves?
Our dinner table routine has evolved with this realization. Instead of just discussing the highs and lows of our day (we call them roses and thorns), we now share what we failed at that day. I do my best to find and share the benefits of my own failures. We collectively applaud each other for our efforts and work together to find the bright side of each defeat.
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